There is an attractive mythology told about the Maine party caucuses used to nominate presidential candidates.

Neighbors get together in classrooms and church basements and exchange views about who they think should lead the nation and what issues they think are the most important. It’s an exercise in direct democracy right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Then there is the version more people have seen with their own eyes. Caucuses are for people who can devote the better part of a day to politics, and who have the physical strength and stamina to go through a complicated process.

In 2016, caucus-goers in Portland and other places did little but stand in line in frigid weather, waiting to be checked in. Other towns that recorded 500 votes in the general election had only five voters signed up to caucus. It’s a system that rewards party insiders and discourages broad participation.

TIME FOR A REAL ELECTION

It’s time that Maine joins the majority of states and makes its once-every-four-years presidential preference selection with a real election.

A bill to do just that sailed through both houses of the Legislature three years ago and was signed by Gov. Paul LePage. But it did not appropriate any funding and unless that is secured this year, Maine will keep its inadequate election system. A bill that would fund the primary system has been submitted by state Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, and deserves our support.

The only stumbling block is money, and it’s not very much. The 2016 law called for election officials to study the costs, and Secretary of State Mathew Dunlap calculated that a primary would cost just under $900,000. Spread out over a population of 1.3 million people once every four years, it seems a small price to pay.

Political parties like the caucus system because they are good recruitment and organization-building tools. After a barrage of television ads and news coverage, people will come to a caucus, sign nomination papers for candidates and otherwise help do the work of the party so that they can register their presidential preference. But that is not a good enough reason to inconvenience or exclude a large swath of the public.

OTHER BILLS

There are other bills up for consideration that could affect a presidential primary. One that is worth careful attention would open all primaries to unenrolled voters, allowing independents to participate without having to join a party. But debate over the merits of that reform should not get in the way of completing the job started three years ago, and making sure that there is a primary system in place for the 2020 election cycle.

When helping to fill the highest office in the land, Maine should stop using a system that’s better equipped to elect a road commissioner at a town meeting. Before the new legislative session gets heated, lawmakers should take care of this leftover piece of business.


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